To date, millions and millions of babies have come into this world via in vitro fertilization (IVF), and recently, researchers have set out to document, define and understand the health effects and lasting influences the fertility treatment process has on a young child's early development.
In previous studies, scientists found a correlation between IVF procedures and neurological disorders, with a small (but still, significant) risk of intellectual disabilities in twins and triplets born through IVF. The research did not find a connection in single-baby births.
So as part of their current work, researchers studied 2.5 million Swedish children to determine whether IVF procedures make children more vulnerable to certain cognitive and developmental delays. They compared the IVF babies to those who were conceived naturally and found that 47 in every 100,000 infants born via IVF developed cognitive deficits, such as low IQ or delays in communication. Interestingly enough, researchers found that 40 in every 100,000 children conceived without the help of IVF experienced the same delays. Lead study author Sven Sandin of King's College in London said, "For IVF there are known risks already, such as birth defects and caner, and no mental retardation should perhaps be added." However, researchers did find that specific IVF procedures (which involved more manipulation of the sperm to promote fertilization) were more likely to be associated with higher rates of neurological issues than just the IVF by itself, which suggests that male-based fertility issues may have a stronger correlation with later cognitive deficiencies.
Perhaps the most telling of the research came when scientists focused in on just single-baby births. They found that the link to intellectual deficits was no longer significant. The results confirm what previous studies identified as a greater risk of birth defects and developmental problems among multiple births, which are more common with IVF since doctors often transfer several embryos during a cycle to improve a woman's chances of becoming pregnant.
While the research is very telling, our immediate reaction is: IVF is still worth the risk.
Take, for instance, the number of children involved in the study. There was only a 7-child difference in the number of delays found in IVF babies versus children who were conceived naturally. While the delays are important for prospective IVF candidates to be aware of, it doesn't seem like huge red flag warning. If the numbers were skewed in favor of natural conception, then it might be time to look into developing other, safer methods to assist in conception, but that is not the case.
Sandin and his colleagues assert that "despite the slightly increased relative risk, the absolute risk of problems with IVF remain small." Also important to keep in mind is that most of the added problems were associated with certain infertility procedures and were not specific to just IVF. "The risk should however be considered, together with a clinician, to be treatment-specific," he said.
So far, over 5 million children have been born via IVF and most are healthy.
Dr. Avner Hershlag, chief of the Center for Human Reproduction at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, N.Y., who was not involved with the study, said, "I am not aware of a case of mental retardation or autism in babies resulting from our treatment," which doesn't mean that there aren't cases of cognitive and development delays (because there are), but it doesn't mean that every instance of IVF puts baby at a greater risk. Hershlag said, "Based on the available data, in general we tell parents that IVF is safe and to a large degree, babies born from IVF are healthy and grow into healthy adults."
Plus, it's also time to consider the future of IVF and how doctors and scientists alike are working round the clock to make IVF an affordable, more successful procedure for women and their partners. While it seems there is a little risk involved, it's one many women would take in a heartbeat.
Is IVF still worth the risk for you?